Choosing your deck is the most important factor in tournament performance. Even if you play perfectly, if your deck is worse than your opponent’s, you will probably lose. If you want to win, you have to play the best deck.

So why doesn’t everyone play the best deck?

First of all, people usually disagree on which deck is the best. This is often justified. When formats are new and untested, there is no way of knowing what the best deck is. Also, there is usually more than one tier one deck. In Return to Ravnica/Theros standard, I thought Mono-Blue Devotion and Mono-Black Devotion were the best decks. They both had excellent game plans, and they were about 50/50 against each other. Either one was a great choice.

If I was right, why did people play other things?

Lack of knowledge – It’s important to have enough time to determine which decks are the best. When a format is fully developed, looking at the results from the last few tournaments and reading a couple strategy articles will give a good impression of which decks are dominant. However, in new environments, the best deck may not have risen to the surface yet. You may have to test many weaker options before finding a best option.

Winning is not everyone’s top priority – Many people play tournaments just to have fun. When winning is secondary, deck choice is based on personal preference. There is nothing wrong with this. Magic is a game, and we play it to have fun. For me, Magic is the most fun when I am winning. For this article, my premise is that you want to win.

Card availability – This factor always increases diversity beyond what “should” happen if everyone could play the best deck.

What is most interesting to me is why people knowingly choose not to play the best deck. I often hear:

“I’m playing [my pet deck]. I know it’s not the best deck, but [some justification that doesn’t matter].”

Metagaming

People justify playing a fringe deck by claiming they are “metagaming against the best deck.” I have never had success with this strategy. Last year at GP Portland, I played Tron in Modern. I knew my deck was not the best, but I wanted to metagame against midrange decks like Jund and Pod. I succeeded in playing against Jund and Pod, but variance sometimes intervened, so I could not win every time. Also, I got paired against other decks like Scapeshift that were much more difficult for Tron. In the end, my narrow strategy was not well equipped to deal with a well-rounded tournament metagame. I wish I had joined the herd and played Jund or Pod.

The problem with metagaming against the best deck is that most people don’t play the best deck, even when they should. If everyone actually did play the best deck, you could beat the odds by playing a deck that exploits the best deck’s weaknesses, but is inherently worse. This approach to deck choice is like a surgeon choosing the best scalpel for an operation. However, assuming a narrow metagame is almost always folly, so although you might gain percentage points against the best deck, these points will be lost in other matchups. (If you don’t lose percentage points in other matchups, it looks like you’ve found the new best deck.) Basically, it’s almost always better to just play the deck that’s so good you were going to metagame against it.

Gaining an Edge

Another popular myth is “I will have no way of gaining an edge if I just play the best deck like everyone else.” Playing the best deck is the edge. You can be one of those lucky few who just does the boring thing and plays the best deck. You will have an advantage over all those playing fringe strategies because their decks are simply not as good. As for the mirror and matchups against the other “best decks,” practice makes perfect. In most tournaments, the number of players playing the best deck with experience will be low. By being well practiced, you will gain an edge over these players. Perhaps in your testing you can also make a few tweaks to improve the matchups against the other best decks.

Play Style

“I am a control/aggro/combo player. The best deck isn’t my style.” In my experience, the best decks are defined by ease. Magic is easiest when you have the best cards, so even if you are usually a control player, you may find a good aggro deck easier to play than a mediocre control deck. Even if the best deck is not your style, perhaps laying down personal preference will help you increase your win percentage.

An Aside on Brewing

Every best deck came from somewhere. The next best deck hasn’t been found yet. If you find the next best deck, you will have have a big advantage. How do you know when you’ve broken it?

I’ll say it again because I think it’s important—the best decks are defined by ease. If you feel like you are scraping out each victory, you are not playing the best deck. You have to be honest with yourself. Even if you enjoy your brew, if it is too hard to win with, you have to scrap it.

Above all, avoid “Fancy Play Syndrome.” Fancy Play Syndrome is a poker term which applies to players who make overly complicated plays because they have an elevated opinion of their skill level. The stock best deck is always correct, unless you have a specific reason to deviate. Don’t become a deck choice hipster who is incapable of playing the best deck.

That’s all for this week, I hope I see you at Grand Prix New Jersey this weekend. Until next time, play the best deck!

Nathan Holiday

@pseudo_nathan
I stream Thursdays from 8 p.m. at twitch.tv/channelfireball